Sunday, January 27, 2002

Anime tribute show particularly Japanese

Dark and sexist images reflect post-WWII themes

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Gargantuan pink vinyl rabbits, 12 feet tall with big blue eyes and Bugs Bunny teeth, bend to bursting in the entryway of the Contemporary Arts Center. Their size and terrifying cuteness welcome visitors to the engaging exhibition My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation.

        More than 32 works by 18 artists inspired by animation in Japan and the United States are on display through March 24.

        The show is a tribute to anime — Japanese animation, video games and comic books — and its influence on contemporary art in Asia and the West.

        CAC senior curator Thom Collins has divided the show roughly in half. On one side of the gallery are the cultural stereotypes shouldered by Japanese women; on the other a nihilistic vision of a post-apocalyptic future.

        Anime has attracted a fervid audience in Japan. The animated Princess Mononokeis the highest grossing film of all time. Video games and the comic books known as manga provide an escape from a post-World War II consciousness still quaking in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

        Superhero characters such as Sailor Moon, Pokemon and Dragonball Z provide the means to do battle with the monsters of environmental contamination and globalization.

Second-class women

        Although spanning several decades and themes, female characters in “Japanimation” still are stereotypes.

        Male characters vanquish foes; female characters vanquish foes and return to school or everyday life. Girls and women have exaggerated body parts and are most often portrayed as submissive (geisha) or lust objects (school girls).

        In My Reality,our introduction to the feminine is a large photomontage by former fashion model Mariko Mori. The stunning triptych Cibachrome print overtakes an entire dividing wall. It is installed in such a way that as you enter the gallery you find yourself walking directly into a night scene in Tokyo's red light district.

        Through a high sheen silver body suit, hot pink halter mini, impossibly long press-on nails and Bride of Chuckie makeup, Ms. Mori, 35, has transformed herself a la Cindy Sherman into a cyborg prostitute. Half woman, half machine, she is a vision of demure, kittenish sexuality blurred by the razor's edge of her pointed metallic ears.

        Ms. Mori's wildly popular images of wild child nymphets with platinum hair, brilliant blue eye shadow and platform heels beg a compare-and-contrast with images of submissive Japanese women. Relying on Eastern and Western inspiration, she fuses performance art, fashion and high technology to create her cyborg women.

        In “Kumano,” Ms. Mori casts herself as geisha-goddess worshiping at the foot of a waterfall in a high-tech temple. The futuristic video combines references to Buddhism, Shinto, sci-fi and the traditional tea service, and utilizes still and moving footage to alter perception and point of view to hallucinogenic effect.

        Sailor Moon, the leader of anime's first all-female group of superheroes, is at the center of “Angry Girl” by Taro Chiezo. Reproduced as a computer-generated image trapped inside the frame of a New York School-style abstract expressionist painting, Sailor breaks through the frame by channeling her powers through a scepter crowned by the iconic Japanese sun.

        She is victorious; New York toppled by Japan. But she remains a vulnerable, round-eyed adolescent in ribbon-wrapped pigtails and the pleated skirt of a school uniform.

        The most challenging work, Venus #2 by Mr. (the alias of Masakatu Iwamoto), is composed of dozens of receipts and scraps of paper. Some are eroticized visions of little girls in colored pencil. Some are just of heads with bright orange hair and green smiles; others wear only bright white underpants or go topless clad in flippy little skirts.

        They remind one of the weird world of Henry Darger whose pencil drawings of the Vivian Girls are on display at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York.

        Undoubtedly the obsessive number of scrap paper drawings evoke the creepy subculture of otaku (loosely translated as geek). These fanatic devotees of anime have encyclopedic knowledge of characters and plots but lack basic social skills.

        On the other side of the gallery, beneath the surface layers of many canvases and slick sculpture, the dark side of technology roils.

        Kenji Yanobe's robot-like vending machine, “Survival Gacha-pon,” dispenses survival capsules containing condoms, matchbooks, peanuts and aspirin. His life-size mono cars that encase drivers in prophylactic fiberglass warn of life after a nuclear holocaust.

        Korean artist Lee Bul's ceramic sculptures present the cyborg female as dislocated body parts. “Untitled (Cyborg pelvis)” and “Untitled (Cyborg leg)” are extraordinarily beautiful, taking their inspiration from the female heroines of animated films.

        Ms. Bul appropriates body parts from classical paintings and sculpture, such as Botticelli's “Birth of Venus” or the Venus di Milo, casting them in porcelain and covering them in a cyborg shell. Utilizing traditional ceramics' techniques and a warm green glaze, she is able to express the division of the superheroine's aggressive power and her vulnerability.

        Media star Takashi Murakami, who has a painting and sculpture in the show, contributes an essay to the catalog, expounding the theory that anime is a response to Japan's defeat in World War II. In his “DOB in a Strange Forest,” the mutant Mickey Mouse character DOB stands on tiptoe, hand raised in a “Stop in the Name of Love” gesture, clearly alarmed by the giant mushrooms surrounding him.

        The psychedelic mushrooms are candy-colored with multiple jade green eyes, polka dot patterns and weird layers of fringe. And although they initially appear sugary sweet, one is soon reminded of hallucinogenics and the physical abnormalities suffered in the wake of nuclear war.

        In the painting “Smooth Nightmare,” another fantasy forest is made up of deformed mushrooms. With eyes half open, the fungi appear drugged. From crowns and stems, extra heads and appendages sprout as the mushrooms lurch across an empty silver background. ,p> Layers of response

        The final resting place in My Reality should be the stunning sculpture by Yoshitomo Nara that sits before the bunnies in the entryway. The serenity of “Quiet, Quiet” resonates from the eggshell surface of the heads of two sleeping children floating above a luminous teacup.

        They are eloquently quiet and astonishingly beautiful, yet appear to be randomly stacked as a helter-skelter pile of toys. The precarious balance of the giant head bodes imminent destruction and a shattering loss of innocence.

        Mr. Collins has done well interpreting the show for the CAC space. There are ample opportunities to lose oneself in the many layers of meaning and staggering craftsmanship as well as many avenues for the younger set to explore and delight in.


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